The blog has become very much neglected over the last few months but it’s not from lack of anything to write about (shesnottypingontheback)! The big Catch Up starts here with our exit from the capital of Tajikistan and heading towards the Pamir region, a stretch that seems a long time ago now.
The trouble with writing this so far after the event is that a lot can change in both our memories of what happened but also, as with any country in Central Asia, the political situation can turn very quickly. True to form, last week a snap decision by President Rakhmon to sack his deputy defence minister caused violence in Dushanbe that was completely at odds with the city that we saw. We hope that Vero and Igor, our hosts while we were there were unaffected.
June 5th 2015
Riding out of Dushanbe we leave behind the big flash cars, elaborate monuments and expensive houses and delve back into the more genuine Tajikistan countryside. After doing so little for four days it feels good to be turning the legs again and getting some blood pumping through our bodies. It’s hot and humid so we stop for a rest in the shade before beginning a big climb to end the day. A woman emerges from a nearby house with a bowl of cherries for us to try which gives us just the energy we need to get at least part way up the hill before pulling over into an orchard for the night.
We finish off the ascent in the morning with the top of the mountain truncated for us by a 4.5km long tunnel that spits us back out into the sunlight and straight into a huge descent to Nurak. The turquoise reservoir sits to our left and the view of it improves as we climb back up to a ridge that overlooks the water.
Lunch of bean soup with pig skin floating in it is brightened up when a wedding party pulls into the layby where we’re sat. Music is turned up loud and the dancing begins. Before long I’m dragged over to join in, much to the amusement of the rest of the guests. The ‘happy’ couple however are stony faced and can’t even raise a smile. Kidnap weddings still take place in this part of the world and by the looks of it both the bride and groom are there against their will.
It’s another scorching hot day which gets warmer once we drop back down a 10km long descent. Melon season has finally arrived and I celebrate by buying a honey dew and eating the whole thing (Kirsty was offered a slice but declined) before diving into an irrigation channel with some local children to cool off.
While resting in the shade again a man arrives on a bike in a crisp white shirt and a blue baseball cap set at a jaunty angle. This is the English teacher for the village. He has 300 children to look after in various classes and of various ages which makes for a tough task. After practising his language skills on us he invites us to his family’s house for dinner. Only it turns out to be the house of one of his friends and once we’re there he leaves instructions for us to be fed before saying goodbye and leaving. It’s a bit awkward but they seem happy to oblige and bring out platefulls of bread, sweets and bowls of soup. I begin to regret carrying an entire melon in my stomach from earlier.
We’re keen to not outstay our welcome given we’d been forced upon our kind hosts so decline their offer to stay and push on for another 10km before hiding the tent in some long grass. As we move east it seems to be getting darker earlier and earlier.
The road takes us across plains and then over rolling hills onto a ridge scattered with beehives then we drop down again into the heat. The mercury has risen to 45 degrees today so we’re desperate for shade by the early afternoon.
All day we’ve seen various wedding cars tooting past with huge bows attached to the bonnets and cheering guests in the convoy behind. While we lounge under some trees for lunch some curious children come to investigate from a garden filled with dancing and music. Shortly after eyeing us up they return with sweets, plums and water. What can we give them in return other than stale bread and raw pasta? It’s so touching to be on the receiving end of all this generosity but at the same time frustrating not to be able to repay it in some way.
Spinning on to the busy town of Kulob Kirsty ducks into a phone shop to buy credit while I stumble across a cobbler who has just the skills and tools we need. One of our rear panniers has come apart at the seems which is no problem for the cobbler who fixes it in no time. Trades like this seem so rare in Europe with so much being disposed instead of fixed.
After Kulob there’s a large ridge of hills to get up and over. Part 1 is tackled that evening with the bulk of it being taken on the following morning. It’s a stinker of a hill, getting steeper and rougher as we go up. We’re under prepared and soon run out of water so we stop two cars and beg for water then round a corner to find a bee keeper and his wife who invite us into their tent. It”s blissfully cool inside and they feed us fried potatoes and chai while we admire their pet pheasant. The bee keeper pulls out his phone to show us a video of the bird’s husband performing it’s duties. It’s a trained fighter and from the looks of the video is usually the one to beat.
We avoid getting stung by the swarms surrounding the mans hives then continue up the rough climb to find a water spout gushing icy cool water to fill our bottles. Even more refreshing are the slices of water melon that passengers of a passing car hand to us.
The climb finally tops out at 1900m and we look forward to a rewarding descent.
But we don’t get one. The road passes through a small town then drops steeply down on an unsurfaced track lined with loose gravel, cobbles and sand. Our progress down is almost as torturously slow as our progress up from the other side.
Gingerly nudging the bike down the hill making full use of all three brakes we have to stop frequently to steady the nerves and allow me to unfold my white knuckles. Which gives us the chance to look around and realise that the gorge we’re plunging into consists of vast slabs of red rocks. It’s brutal but beautiful.
We’re not the only ones that the road is punishing. Large Chinese trucks are inching their way up with more than a few casualties along the way. Every km or so a vehicle lies with it’s guts spread across the side of the road and a greasy driver sweating over a spanner or hammer trying to get it working again. The trucks that are still rolling kick up a cloud of dust that fill our eyes, noses, mouths and ears and I have to stop until the route ahead becomes visible.
But when the dust settles after the last corner the sight in front of us is breath taking. In the valley below is the River Panj, an angry torrent that forms the border for this part of Tajikistan. Beyond it are enormous mountains with pastures and woodland on the lower slopes and reaching up through bare, grey rock to craggy, snow capped peaks. This is our first view of Afghanistan.
The rocky road seems to continue once we drop off the hill so the next few days could well be tough on the backsides. Despite a warning that the police might not like it, we camp next to the river. In the distance a fierce thunder storm is raging with lightning forking down into the valley but it’s far enough away not to be of concern while we prepare dinner.
At 2am the storm arrives above our tent. Heavy rain pelts the canvas and we’re lit up every three seconds from the bright light of the lightening with the sound of thunder a constant, deafening rumble. The Hilleberg stands up to the assault with ease but its a nerve wracking half hour before it all subsides again.
With relief the storm soaked track turns into a beautifully paved road after the next 10km. We wind along the Panj valley with Afghanistan never more than a stones throw away.
Looking across to the mud hut villages and tented encampments, linked together by donkey tracks barely wide enough for a motorbike, let alone a four wheeled vehicle it seems like a world from another century. The men wear long tunics and the women are often completely covered. There are no power cables but we see the occasional satellite dish so presumably there are a few generators.
On our side of the river some considerable time and money has been spent on the road, providing us with a smooth strip of black top that weaves up and over rock outcrops and around the huge, steep cliffs. It’s a true delight to ride and quickly steps into the top 10 of roads ridden so far.
Although it’s hard to stop when the riding is this good, we spot the ideal camp spot tucked under some trees by a riverside beach so decide to pull over early. We’re quickly joined by two Russian motorbikers and then the more unwelcome border guards arrive. We’re asked to move on as we’re too close to this sensitive border. The threat, they say, is from Afghans trying to swim or row across in the night. Looking at the strength of the river this seems an unlikely scenario for even the most determined Afghan so we argue that we only want to stay for one night.
The Russians help our case by being more persuasive with the guards in a language they understand and eventually they concede and leave us be.
Shortly after they return and present us with a fish! We’ve already eaten so put it to one side at which point it starts flapping about. I rush down to the river with it and gently lower it into the water. It shows it’s gratitude at being released by rolling one fin into the air then fully onto it’s back to reveal it’s white belly before quietly drifting off down stream. It’s not quite the reenactment of the final scene from Free Willy that we hoped for.
The feared attack overnight never happens but this border is genuinely a risky place to be. However a lot of the movements are carefully controlled. One statistic we were given showed that as much as 30% of Tajikistan’s GDP comes from payments to facilitate drug trafficking through the country, from Afghanistan up towards Russia. 80% of the worlds opium is grown in Afghanistan with a large proportion finding its way across the River Panj. This explains the number of large European cars being driven around Dushanbe and the apparent wealth on display. It seems the government have taken the stance of “if you can’t beat them, join them.”
The tarmac ends the following afternoon with a short, stony climb and a sickening crunch from the back of the bike. It was only a matter of time before it happened but the rear derailleur has broken, throwing itself into the wheel, bending the mech hanger and spewing it’s jockey wheels into the dust.
I walk away from the bike and have a quiet moment of contemplation.
It was inevitable because of a freak accident that happened in Uzbekistan last month. While in Nukus my helmet was balanced on a front pannier and during a short ride around the corner it fell off and went under the rear wheel. By sheer unlucky chance the strap also wrapped itself around the rear derailleur causing it to bend and crack. So we were left with a slightly squashed helmet and a damaged derailleur that could be reassembled but was severely weakened. Annoying and avoidable.
Back to the road in Tajikistan and we have a few issues to fix. Two boys come to see what the fuss is about and hand us some water. The mech hanger is part of the steel frame which is a deliberate design feature as it means it’s bendable unlike a replaceable aluminium one. I just need something to bend it with so Kirsty digs out our picture book and shows the boys a drawing of a hammer. They nod excitedly and run off, returning quickly with the desired tool. I begin hitting the bike against a rock but the rock keeps slipping and cracking. One of the boys disappears again and comes back with a metal block. Much better for hammering against and before long the hanger is pointing in the right direction again.
Next up is the derailleur itself. It’s in a bad way but it should be possible to assemble it as a simple chain tensioner and ride the bike as a single speed so I give it a go. It works! We return the tools to the boys with a hearty thanks and a few sweets then gingerly set off again, pedaling with great care. It lasts 1km before the derailleur becomes another tangled mess. This time it’s terminal.
There’s a 20km walk ahead of us into the next town of Kalaikhum so we begin trudging. We’ve barely covered 1km when out of a cloud of dust a Land Cruiser appears and it pulls over at the sight of our upturned thumbs. Unusually there’s nothing in the back and nothing on the roof so we split the bike and it gets lashed onto the car. Half an hour later we’re in Kalaikhum enjoying lunch with some French and Dutch motor cyclists.
It’s a tiny town so the chances of finding a new derailleur seem just as small. Our hopes are unreasonably high however as Kirsty had read a blog from another cyclist who was faced with the exact same dilemma almost exactly a year ago. His derailleur had also returned itself to its constituent parts but he managed to find a new one in this very town.
Some inquiries at various shops provides the information we need. “Look for the bearded man with a kiosk across the street”. We find the kiosk, that appears to be selling a random assortment of tools, gadgets and pirated music. All of a sudden the bearded man appears and I show him a picture of what we need. He nods knowingly and reaches into a box of delights on the lower shelf. He turns round and is his hand is the shiniest and most welcome bicycle part I’ve ever set eyes on. A bar of gold would be less valuable to us right now and our pockets are as deep as they need to be. He demands 25 somani for this trip saving object (£2.50).
Much of the talk in Dushanbe was to debate whether to go ‘north or south’. There are two routes into Kalaikhum for cyclists to choose from: north is shorter, rougher, more remote. We took the South route which is 100km longer but arrived a day before those who went north thanks to the quality of the roads so think we made the right choice.
Apart from the excellent ‘bike shop’, the best thing about Kalaikhum is that the supermarket sells Nutella. With this vital supply on board we take to the road again the next day. Hoards of school girls crowd round us to practice their English before we leave.
Ahead lies over 200km of mostly unpaved, potholed, rough road which will be the toughest test of the tandem so far. We’re going into it with a front rack welded by a Kazakh bus mechanic, a front wheel built by someone who had never built a wheel before (me), a pannier sewn together by a Tajik cobbler and a rear derailleur that cost less than an inner tube.
Straight away the rear derailleur proves to be worth every penny we paid, delivering 4 out of the 27 gears that we should have at our disposal. Any steep, hard climbs, of which there are many, result in a crunching of chain against cassette. Sometimes we’d limp up, sometimes we’d have to push and sometimes the chain would break and we’d nearly fall off. By Khorog there are 5 emergency ‘quick links’ holding the chain together.
But we keep moving forward regardless. The greener valley in the stretch before Kalaikhum turns more sparse afterwards with any flat and vegetated areas being occupied by a village, like an oasis amongst the sheer rock. Unusually, although we’re following it upstream, the river broadens out into a flat plain before Rushan.
On the other side of the river, Afghan road builders are busy blasting a new road out of the rock. While enjoying tea in one village we’re warned to keep our bike behind a building in case it gets damaged from flying rocks caused by the explosions. They show us smashed windows in the school house even though it’s set a long way back from the river. The other side really is a stones throw away, provided the stone is launched with dynamite.
It takes 3.5 days to reach Khorog with every pedal stroke a test of riders and machine. Along the way we sleep on a tea bed outside the house of a group of women whose husbands are busy tending herds high on the mountains. We find a mulberry orchard is a good place for a tent and provides a tasty porridge topping. An old lady and her grand children spend 2 hours watching us set up camp and cook while they eat raw rhubarb.
At one point an 8 year old darts out of a lake and stands in the road demanding Denghi (money) wearing nothing but his birthday suit. I swerve to avoid him at which point he snatches a drinks bottle, snapping the securing bungy in the process. I stop and sprint after the naked Dick Turpin roaring with rage. The boy is terrified and abandons the bottle. He then returns with with a wobbling lower lip offering a 10 somani note from the sock he’s clutching. It’s then that I realise that chasing a naked Tajik boy whike shouting until he cries must be the moment in my life that I am least proud of. We decline the offering and shamefully ride off.
We pass at least a dozen pictures of the president welcoming us into Khorog and we’re very glad to see him. This is the regional capital for the Pamir region and gateway to the Pamir Highway. We check into the Pamir Lodge, a favourite for cyclists and motor bikers high above the town.
The shiny rear derailleur may have been less than perfect but I suspect a fully laden touring tandem on a steep, rough track may have been beyond the design criteria laid out for it when it was assembled in its factory in China. The main thing is it got us here and that’s worth 25 somani in anyone’s money.
The next day our Irish friend Will arrives having braved the north route and with tales of boulder fields, river crossings and flooded roads. This is why it was christened ‘The Adventure Route’ by Hannah and Emese who we’d met, still shell shocked from the experience, in Dushanbe.
Will is a man who likes to be prepared and when he’s not fighting off Chaihana ladies he’s busy researching his route and getting ready for what the road might throw at him. Knowing he has some difficult terrain to come he had taken the precaution to pack a spare rear derailleur yet hearing of our predicament he very graciously offers to lend us this precious device. Tears well in our eyes at yet another generous act. We offer the shiny China special in return and pray he doesn’t have to use it.
This deserves an ode to Will in the traditional style of his home town:
There was a young man called Will
Who was prepared for every hill
With a broken rear mech
We had to shout ‘feck’
But Will’s spare parts fit the bill
Stocking up in the Bazaar, feasting at the first Indian restaurant we’ve seen for months and giving the bike a thorough overhaul occupy most of the next day then we’re ready to head for the hills again.
North or south are again the options. South is the Wakhan corridor that continues to follow the Panj along the border. It promises spectacular views of the Hindu Kush mountains, untouched village communities and some of the worst roads ever to carry a bicycle. And carrying is a distinct likelihood as there are long stretches of sand which is the worst enemy of a tandem. North is the M41, the Pamir Highway itself. Mostly paved, also with stunning views and altogether more tandem friendly. We turn the bars north and leave Wakhan for another day on other bikes.